Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Falafel, Baba Ganoush, and a Genetic Culinary Predisposition

When I was 15, my sister went to college in Pensacola, FL, a few hours drive from our home on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  (By the way, when you think of Mississippi, the first picture that comes to mind may not be the lovely place I grew up.  Here is a picture to give you a reference of the paradise I left when I moved to Arizona.)
This picture, taken literally a few blocks from where I was born and raised, makes me want to turn my face southwards and breathe in the healing, salty air. 

Sigh...ok, back to Pensacola.  The first weekend my family went there to drop my sister off for school, we found this incredibly sketchy looking Middle Eastern restaurant called "Aladdin's Cafe" owned by two Iranian men and one Syrian man.  It was an odd combo.  It reminded me a lot of the "Dream Cafe" from Seinfeld.  However, they made AMAZING food. I tried falafel there for the first time, and it rocked my world.  If you don't know what falafel is, it is a deep fried patty made out of chickpeas and/or fava beans and spices.  It can be stuffed into a pita and topped with hummus and veggies, or just devoured straight off the plate. 
My whole family, including my little brother who was 7 at the time, looked forward with deep longing each time we could go to Pensacola and eat more of this amazing food.

Ok, backing up a few years for a quick detour....  My mom Carol, spent her sophomore year of college at the Beirut College for Women in Lebanon, and during her time there grew to love the distinct flavors of the local cuisine.  She brought that affinity for this type of food home with her at the end of her year abroad and shared it with my dad when they were married just a few months later.  My dad James is a much-loved veterinarian by both owners and animals...
best picture kitten Ivy was shamelessly demanding his attention.... 
but is also, famously I might add, a lover of delicious and exotic food.  He enjoyed the Middle Eastern food we ate together as a family so much that he worked to recreate much of it at home in his own kitchen.  Two of the dishes I think he did an especially good job with were hummus and baba ganoush.  Pure yumminess.  Way to go dad.  

So, I come by my love for both falafel and baba ganoush honestly.  It was both inherited through my genes as well as inculcated through my diet from an early age.  At least that is what I tell myself when I devour mounds of the stuff.

While craving Middle Eastern food last weekend I happened upon this recipe for a baked sweet potato falafel (who could argue with that?!) and this one for a lighter version of baba ganoush (basically a low-tahini version that still tastes good) from Susan Voisin's Fat Free Vegan Kitchen.  A few quick notes on the recipes before getting down to business.

1.) You may need to add water (just a little) to the sweet potato dough to make it mix well.
2.) I used whole-wheat flour instead of besan in my falafels and they turned out great.  Besan will up to protein count though, so if you have it, use it!
3.) Go easy on the garlic and cayenne in the baba ganoush.  I almost killed John with the spiciness, and it was even a little intense for me.  (I love spice.)

Here they are!
from Susan's Voisin's Fat Free Vegan Kitchen
Sweet Potato Falafel
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground flax seeds + 2 tbsp hot water
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes (about 18 ounces, total)
  • 2-3 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1/8 – 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 cup chickpea flour or besan
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • sesame seeds (optional)


  1. Mix the flax seeds with two tablespoons hot water and set aside to thicken.
  2. Pierce sweet potatoes several times with a fork and place on paper towels in microwave. Microwave on high for 2 minutes, turn over, and then cook for another 2 minutes. Check for tenderness, and if not cooked all the way through, cook in increments of 30 seconds until tender. Set aside to cool until easy to handle; peel and place in a large bowl.
  3. Preheat oven to 400F. Mash sweet potatoes well with a masher or a fork. Add the flax mixture, seasonings (including parsley), and lemon juice and stir well. Mix the chickpea flour with the baking powder and add it a little at a time to the sweet potato mixture. Stir until well-combined. Batter should be stiff; if not, add chickpea flour a tablespoon at a time until batter is thick. (If the batter is too stiff to blend in all the flour, add water a tablespoon at a time.)
  4. Oil a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper or silicone baking mat. Use a cookie scoop or rounded tablespoon to make about 20-22 little mounds of dough on the baking sheet (dipping the scoop in water every now and then will help prevent the dough from sticking to it). Flatten the balls to about 1/2-inch thick and 1 1/2-inches wide. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until bottoms are medium brown. These keep well and can be reheated briefly in the microwave.

Baba Ganoush
  • 1 large eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 2 cloves garlic (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (or to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon tahini (or to taste)
  • ground cumin


  1. Preheat oven to 425 F (or better yet, do this on your barbecue grill!) With a fork, punch a bunch of holes in the eggplant and place it on a baking dish or sheet. Cook for about 45 minutes, until the eggplant is all sunken in. Remove from the heat and let it cool until you can peel it safely. Peel and put it in a food processor. Add the salt, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini, and process until it’s smooth. Serve sprinkled with cumin and surrounded by the vegetables of your choice.
I served both the falafel and the baba ganoush over a bed of greens, with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.  They were divine!  I think next time I'll go easier on the spices, but we both agreed that this is a good dish for our regular rotation.  

I hope you fellow lovers of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisine will give these recipes a shot!  Let me know how you like them.  Here is what ours looked like!

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